Many of us are now embracing the wonderful craziness of March Madness. Spring’s very arrival seemingly plays second fiddle, or better, backup point guard to what countless basketball fans perceive as the real ritual of spring’s start: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Disturbingly, the state of college athletics – especially as reflected in two strongly recommended recent documentaries, “Money and March Madness” and “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” – should give one pause about nonreflectively embracing March Madness. Each of these documentaries offers an insightful critique of the exploitation of college athletes by their exploiters, sometimes identified as “institutions of higher learning.”
Still, there is a special charm relating to basketball that will remain even above and beyond the financial madness of intercollegiate sports today. It is that charm we celebrate today.
It’s the summer of 1960. Local legend Golden “Sunny” Sunkett visits the outdoor courts in a northern New Jersey city.
Going boy-to-legend with “The Golden One,” I have the ball 20 feet from the basket.
Sunny faces me. There’s a fake to go right, and Sunkett bites like a lonely drunk pursuing a wink. I drive left, thinking “The Golden One” is surely “The Overrated One.”
“Bite on that one, Golden One,” I confidently think to myself as I float toward the open hoop.
Suddenly, there’s a blur. I simultaneously feel electricity and hear a thunderous smack and then absorb a bewildering knock in the head.
“What’s going on here?” I wonder.
I have just been stuffed, of course. With a burst of gifted speed, Sunny has not only blocked my shot but also ignominiously swatted it off my head and out of bounds.
Humiliated, I retreat to the relative safety of defense, with profound respect for “Mr. Sunkett.”
As all basketball fans know, a strong block has become a major part of the game today.
Indeed, an extensive lexicon has developed celebrating that special moment of ecstasy for the defender and agony for the shooter.
Colorful and imaginative terms employed to describe or celebrate the stuffed shot include: “blocked,” “rejected,” “salted,” “erased,” “swatted,” “smashed,” “destroyed, ” “In your face,” “Eat it,” “Eat leather,” “Enjoy your lunch?” “Mr. Rawlings’ Sandwich,” “Taste good?” “Would you like ketchup with those fries?” “Swallow the rock,” “Kiss the rock” and “Not in my house.”
What many modern-day, March Madness’ billion-dollar bracket-obsessed hoop fans might not know is that the lore of the “stuff’ can be traced far back to the game’s origin.
The “stuff” has always been a key part of the game, has usually surprised and shocked the victimized shooter, and has always delighted fans, at least those supporting the stuffer’s team if not always the stuffee’s.
In his informative book, “Basketball: Its Origin and Development,” basketball’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, quaintly wrote the following description of the first game of basketball played in his physical education class in 1891:
“Sometimes when a player received the ball, he would poise with it over his head to make sure he would make the goal. About the time he was ready to throw, someone would reach up from behind and take the ball out of his hands. This occurred frequently and was a never-ending source of amusement. No matter how often a player lost the ball in this manner, he would always look around with a surprised expression that would plainly say, ‘Who did that?’ His embarrassment only added to the laughter of the crowd.”
One suspects that today’s hipper sportswriter reporting on the first basketball game would have used the following language even while the essential “stuff” of the story remains the same after more than 100 years of hoops.
They might have written something like: “Sometimes when a baller takes the rock, he would bring it up high so he’s closer to the rim. About the time he’s ready to lay it in or jam it down, a defender abruptly swats it away.”
In these days of March Madness, we can recall that basketball has changed significantly since its inception, but some aspects of the beautiful game remain. Dr. Naismith would understand and, I think, be happy with some if not all of those changes. He has, of course, been spared from watching the recent documentaries on college sports and money, but real basketball fans should not be.
— Special to the Press Herald